Let me be clear from the start, that I am not a big fan of the Tea Party. I think it has become an avenue for extremists to inject their view into the mainstream, views that drip with paranoid xenophobia. I don’t affiliate myself with any political party, unless that party is prepared to follow the teachings and example of Jesus…as I interpret them, of course. But with that being said, I still think that Americans need to listen to the opinions of the Tea Party because they are fellow Americans, and because real dialogue means listening to people that we don’t agree with, not just to the ones we do.
I’m sure most of you know what has been going on in Tucson, the shootings that occurred there, and the responses from both the political left and right as a consequence. The sheriff of Tucson, Clarence Dupnik, and others have used this situation as a moment to point out the effects of the outrageous rhetoric that currently dominates American culture, while the right dismisses this idea, saying that the shooting has nothing to do with the inflammatory language that increasingly is being used around the country. On an ideological level, I wholeheartedly agree with the sheriff, that people have come to accept unacceptably intolerant and uninformed images and language in public discourse, and this has created a poisonous atmosphere in our country. And it would not surprise me in the least if this type of language eventually contributed to violent behavior – that’s what happened in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s.
But in this specific case, I think this development has little, if anything, to do with what happened in Tucson last week. Let me tell you why:
In 2007, I was a pastor at a large Korean American church in Herndon, Virginia, west of the Washington D.C. And in April of that year, Seung Hui Cho, a young Korean American man from that area, whose family lived just a few miles from our church, perpetrated the worst massacre by a single gunman in U.S. history, killing 32 people and wounding scores more. I remember driving out to Virginia Tech that week to visit and counsel some of the students that I knew there, and seeing people crying everywhere, on the sidewalks, on the campus green, in restaurants.
Eventually, the media parked themselves outside of the shooter’s home, and began trying to discern his motive. I would field a few phone calls a day from different media organizations, all asking if I knew the shooter or his family, and anything else that I thought was significant. But one thing that I found striking about these interviews was that the reporters would always bring up his ethnic background, the fact that he was Korean. They would ask if I thought intense academic pressure had driven him over the edge, or the fact that he was a recent immigrant, and between cultures. Or maybe it was that Korean movie that he liked so much, “Oldboy”. They seemed to want to know if somehow, him being Korean was a factor in his rage.
Now I understand what they were trying to get at, trying to untangle the shooter’s history and his possible motives and all. But I resented this line of questioning, the idea that being Korean made one more prone to doing something so horrific. Seung Hui Cho was Korean, but he was also clearly mentally ill, and that was clear from his manifestos and videos and behavior. And the massacre that he perpetrated was a consequence of his illness, not his ethnicity. Sure, it is possible that a Korean movie influenced him, and that being caught between cultures made him feel more isolated and alone than usual. But to use that moment as a criticism of Korean parenting or culture or media was totally inappropriate, and harmful, as it misdirected people’s attention from the true root cause.
And I get this sense of deja vu from the shooting that took place in Tucson. Jared Loughner is profoundly ill – his ramblings online and behavior before the shooting make that pretty clear. It’s not at all clear that he had any political affiliations, Tea Party or otherwise, that he was a birther or believed in a 9/11 conspiracy – but even if he did, it would be inappropriate, and unfair, to latch on to those beliefs or allegiances as the root cause of his actions. This tragedy does not highlight the lack of civility in American public discourse, but how terrible mental illness is, and how mental illness needs to be de-stigmatized and treated more seriously. To extend the lesson beyond that is not really helpful, nor appropriate.
Now, is it clear that people need to tone down their rhetoric and learn how to speak with some measure of civility and respect? Surely, of that there is no doubt. Is the Tea Party wrong for dragging guns and gun culture as acceptable tools of intimidation into public debate? In my opinion, yes. Is the Tea Party to blame for this shooting? No, and it is strange for the sheriff of Tucson to use this tragedy as a moment to condemn the lack of civility in Arizona, and in America in general, when in reality all the polite discourse in the world probably would not have stopped Jared Loughner. You can’t treat a problem effectively without diagnosing its causes accurately.
Don’t worry, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the lack of respectful discourse in this country results in a tragedy in its own right. But that isn’t really what happened in Tucson.